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Interview: Open Kitchen Founder and Owner Mary Johns

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Because food connects us all.

mary johns at open kitchen event
Hawwi Restaurant owner Hanane Salim with Mary Johns as she hosts an event [Photo courtesy Mary Johns]

Open Kitchen is unlike anything else I know of. Run by Mary Johns, an experienced D.C.-area event planner with culinary chops of her own, Open Kitchen offers a win-win of international cuisine. Immigrant chefs share the stories and foodways of their homeland and do cooking demonstrations. Guests learn about a foreign culture through its people and cuisine, and enjoy an amazing meal.

Mary Johns moved from the Richmond area to culturally diverse Washington, D.C. after college to start her career. She befriended a Chinese family who lived down the hall, asking them to teach her how to cook food from their homeland. Her curiosity about international food, cultures, and people’s immigrant stories continued.

Mary is a fearless epicurean, cook, and entrepreneur. She discovered that amazing friendships can form over preparing and enjoying food together, and has built a business helping others discover the same.

You’ll also like: Manners & More With Etiquette Expert Myka Meier and Interview: Anela Malik of Feed the Malik

mary johns headshot
Photo courtesy Mary Johns

The Interview: Mary Johns of Open Kitchen

Editor’s Note: This article has been lightly edited and condensed for space.

Lisa Ruland: Founding Open Kitchen reflects a really interesting evolution in your career. Can you talk about how your career path led to this, specifically, given your background?

Mary Johns: When I was a young mom, about eight years ago, I heard about a New York City project where people would learn to cook from home cooks in their home. I just thought, “Oh, my word, that’s so cool!” because I’d already been doing that personally since moving to D.C., where I would meet people in my apartment complex and cook with them.

I had already learned that cooking together could overcome cultural barriers and language barriers. So when I heard that this was a business model, I sat on this idea for about six to eight years. But I was hung up on it because I was concerned about scalability and safety, because I wanted to initially host these in people’s homes.

And I was praying about it. My kids were going back to school. I was sensing that I was going to restart my career and I was an entrepreneur and wanted to use my skills to pursue something that I was passionate about. And then as I was praying on it, I had this inspiration that restaurants are completely equipped to do this. I was like, “That’s it!”

This food is an art form. And when you watch [the restaurant] Dolan Uyghur‘s owner [Hamid Kerim] hand-pulling noodles in front of you, and you hear about how he fled China when he found out he would be headed to a concentration camp, and how his brother is in a concentration camp now, and how his mother is raising his brother’s children, it makes it real. 

[For his event], we had someone come and play traditional Uighur music. It just came to life. Some people had never heard of the Uighurs until this event. So it bought exposure, but also connected us to this family and what’s happening to his story personally. And it makes people want to support these entrepreneurs and hopefully care about their neighbors a little more.

mary johns with dolan uyghur owner
Mary Johns and daughters with Dolan Uyghur owner Hamid Kerim [Photo courtesy Mary Johns]

You founded Open Kitchen in 2019, with this goal or bringing people and cultures together through eating, and less than a year later, we go on lockdown for Covid. So, no communal eating. No communal anything. What happened behind the scenes at that point? Where was your head in terms of “How am I going to do this?”

Ok, so the crazy thing is that on March 15, I had an event at [Turkish restaurant] Yayla Bistro. We were going to cancel, and we asked if they wanted to still do it. They said yes, even if it’s just five people. So we went ahead and proceeded with it. We still managed to get 25 people there, which was impressive. And while we were at the event, D.C. announced a shut down of indoor restaurant dining. So we did the event, and we did safe-distancing measures. 

So we left on a high note, but we had several events in the works that I had to postpone. So I was just left wondering how I could help these people I really wanted to support. So I heard about Feed the Fight [a program to deliver restaurant meals to hospital and frontline workers], and I noticed that most of the restaurants were American-style. So I reached out and said that I have a network of immigrant restaurants.

Between April and June, Feed the Fight was able to support immigrant-owned restaurants because they were paying for these meals. Restaurants were saying that it was great to have a little income, but also that emotionally, it was great to help fight Covid and stay busy. 

I think a lot of immigrant-owned restaurants suffered the most because they are not traditional takeout food. So I was able to develop some relationships. So it was really positive for me to be able to put my hand to something under Open Kitchen, and really positive for the business owners.

You have a deep sense of the unique role food plays in forging connections between people. Why do you think food that does this — in a way, maybe that nothing else can?

Food is comforting. Food breaks down walls and barriers. Food helps explain where we came from. Food tells a story and allows conversation to come naturally because if you’re eating a meal, you’re able to learn about the culture. Like, as an example, I wasn’t familiar with food from Laos. But you eat food from Laos and you see banana leaves, fish. You see similarities to Thai and you can tell a lot right there just from that.

One specific memory I have from my apartment in Crystal City is this couple who invited me to a three-hour Chinese New Year dinner at their apartment, and everyone spoke Chinese the whole time. And we were all using our chopsticks to share food from the same pot. They were showing such hospitality even though I didn’t know their language. 

How do you, Mary Johns, envision Open Kitchen in the future? 

I would love for this to be the thing you do when you come to D.C. I would love for people, when they come to D.C. and think about the monuments and the museums, to also think of D.C. as a melting pot with the best international food in the nation represented here. I want them to look at Open Kitchen D.C. as their cultural tour guide. It is a way for locals to explore the world on a random Sunday afternoon, but also a way for people from outside the area to explore and understand a new culture. 

Hawwi Restaurant owner
Hawwi Restaurant owner Hanane Salim demonstrating Ethiopian food at an Open Kitchen event. [Photo courtesy Mary Johns]

Why given how diverse we are as a city, why don’t we eat that way? It seems like a lot of us stay inside our lane, and the food media tends not to cover immigrant restaurants as much.

One of the beauties of D.C. is that we probably are far more advanced in understanding that global food than a lot of other places. That [immigrant-owned restaurants] Anju and Seven Reasons were listed on Washingtonian’s Best Restaurants list two years in a row is positive.

I think it’s just a mindset, probably. People are a little bit scared about what they don’t know or what’s familiar to them. I’m raising my kids so that if we see a hole in the wall on the side of the road, they’re like, “Oooh, have we been there yet? Can we go there?” Hopefully the next generation will be used to being curious.

But I think about the way my husband and I were raised in the South. That would have been exotic to us. So I think some of it is that if you’re not familiar with something, you’re intimidated by it. It isn’t an intentional snub, it’s just so unfamiliar, people don’t know what to do when they get there. So one of my desires is to make these foods more accessible. I only host events at places where I have eaten and vetted. I want to find places that best represent that culture, and give guests a safe and interesting experience that makes this food more accessible.

My goal is to demystify global cuisine. So I also send people home with a recipe, and hopefully they’ll give it a try at home. I also email them with a coupon to go back at the restaurant. And they do! The restaurant owners know that these guests are coming back. So that’s really goal of mine: to make these foods more accessible and honor the people making it. 

And everyone has a story, right? 

And they are dear, dear, people. Almost to a person, one of the first things everyone says when they call me, or I call them about something like an event is, “How is your family?” And I have to remember to think that way also, because I sometimes catch myself jumping right into business talk. They really care. They actually do want to meet my kids and my husband. It’s all about real relationships. In America sometimes we lose that connection, and it’s really helped me appreciate their place in the context of family.

Check out more about Mary Johns and Open Kitchen here.

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